Jeff Flowers on January 28, 2015 6 Comments Barrel Aging for Beginners If you have been a part of the craft beer / homebrewing scene for a while, you would know that barrel aging is very much alive and well. Historically speaking, all beers were barrel aged, given that beers were served directly out of wooden barrels and even stored in beer caves for long periods of time (caves were optimal places for storing beer because of their constant cooler ambient temperatures). However, with the advent of stainless steel and lack of diversity in the beer world after Prohibition ended, wooden barrels became a thing of the past in American beer discourse. Nonetheless, with the expansion of the craft beer revolution that started in the 1970s, more and more breweries adopted aging beers in wood barrels to give a unique character to their beer. To up the ante, breweries and homebrewers are also going one step further, and are using wood barrels that have been previously used for spirits (whiskey, bourbon, tequila, rum, etc.) and wine (chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir, etc.). This melds the character and flavor of the wood with the beer, while adding a distinct flavor and aroma profile of the specific wine or spirit used previously. While you may think barrel aging is something you cannot accomplish as a homebrewer, you need to think again. It can be a highly rewarding project that will leave you wanting more! Not All Beers Are Created Equal in Barrel Aging While, in theory, any beer can be ‘aged’ in a barrel, there are certain beer styles that automatically lend themselves to being prime candidates for barrel aging. Here is a handy list of beer qualities that make them excellent styles to age in spirit/wine barrels. Higher ABV: Beers that contain a minimum of 8-9% ABV or higher are better suited for barrel aging than their lower ABV counterparts. There are a number of reasons for this. First, higher ABV beers can withstand the harsh environment of a barrel. These beers are generally aged in barrels for approximately 6-9 months, or even longer. The higher alcohol content acts as a barrier for microbes that would normally turn beer bad. Second, beer styles that have higher ABV are styles that can incorporate oxidized flavors into the beer. While keeping oxidation at bay is the norm for most beer, it’s an accepted part of the beer style for higher ABV beers like Barleywines, Imperial Stouts, and Belgian Quads. Sour Beers: Most sour beers fall below the 8-9% threshold discussed earlier. However, if you are intentionally souring your beer, the microbes that you are using will lower the pH of the beer, which will inhibit the growth of bad bacteria that would turn the batch bad. Also, the time needed for bacteria like lactobacillus and pediococcus to develop coincide with the time necessary for barrel aging. The longer you age a sour beer, the more funk/sour qualities you get. Bacteria and wild yeast also have the ability to metabolize the wood and convert it to ethanol, which further enhances their flavor and aroma. Styles You Should Not Barrel Age While the above examples outlines styles that are well suited for barrel aging, there are some that would not work as well. Here are a few of those styles. Hoppy Beers: Pale Ales, IPAs, DIPAs, and other hop forward beers are not well suited for barrel aging. This is because these styles showcase hop as the main flavor component of the beer. Hop aromas are extremely volatile, and fade quickly over time. The necessary time required to pick up enough barrel character would mute any hop aroma and flavor. This would be the case whether you’re brewing with pellet hops or whole cone hops. Lower ABV Styles: Any beer style that is not a sour and is lower ABV, may not work well in a barrel-aged format. These styles generally have a shorter shelf life (approximately 180 days) and are best enjoyed fresh. The lower alcohol content also means two things. First, there is a higher risk of microbe contamination. Second, the barrel flavor and aroma profile would come through so much, that it would detract from the base flavor and runs the risk of tasting astringent or overly woody. How to Barrel Age on a Homebrew Scale Most barrel aging in a commercial setting is done in 55 gallon barrels. Unless you are an ambitious homebrewer, chances are, you are brewing less than 10 gallons per batch. However, batch size should not determine whether or not you could barrel age your own homebrew. There are a number of different methods to help you achieve the same wood/spirit flavor and aroma while brewing beer at home. Photo Credit: Oregon Dept. of Forestry / Flickr Wood Chips/Cubes: This is the easiest/cheapest method for a homebrewer to add wood flavor and aroma to ‘barrel age’ their beer. Your favorite homebrew supply store may have both readily available on hand. Wood chips are essentially shards of wood that you add to your secondary in order to achieve the level of barrel flavor you desire. Wood cubes are cubes of wood (approximately ¼-½”). Both are used in the same manner. I prefer to use cubes over chips because the amount of surface area to beer ratio is easier to determine on a cube than a chip. If you want to just add wood flavor to your beer, you’ll need to sanitize by steaming the cubes or chips. Steaming is better than soaking the wood in a sanitizer solution (StarSan, Iodaphor, bleach, etc.) because those sanitizers will leave behind residuals in the wood that can cause off flavors. If you want to add a spirit flavor as well, just soak the chips or cubes in your spirit of choice for a minimum of a week. The higher alcohol content in the spirit will kill off any microbes present in the wood. As a general rule of thumb, use 1 oz. of cubes/chips per 5-gallon batch. Wood Spirals: Wood spirals are much like their chip/cube counterparts, but offer a greater surface area to beer ratio. If you want to get wood/spirit flavor fast, then this is a great route to go. The one downside is that they can be hard to get out of a carboy. All the methods described to use chips/cubes can be applied the same way for a spiral. Wooden Barrels: This is the true way to create a ‘barrel age’ beer. Using barrels have a lower surface area to beer ratio, meaning you will have to have your beer sit in the barrel for a number of months in order to achieve the same flavor as using chips or cubes. Barrels come in many sizes: 5, 10, 15, 25, and 55 gallons are the most common that I have seen. One of the drawbacks of using barrels is their cost, especially if you buy online and have to ship. Check your local listings for distilleries and see if you could buy a freshly emptied spirit barrel directly from them. This is precisely the route that my local homebrew club followed to make a clone of Goose Island’s Bourbon County Stout. It worked well. If the barrel is being used relatively soon after the barrel is dumped, you don’t need to worry too much about microbial contamination. However, sanitizing a barrel is relatively easy to accomplish. Heat pasteurization effectively kills microbes while retaining the wood/spirit character of the barrel. Heat water to approximately 180° and fill the barrel half way. Let the barrel sit on one side for 30 minutes then flip the barrel on the other side, letting sit for 30 minutes.